Neither winner felt as though he or she played particularly well at all. The judges heard it differently.
At the recent Kathryn Gawartin Chopin Competition, a keen-listening panel anointed Michael Smith (who lives on Crown Avenue in La Cañada Flintridge) and Sabrina Tsoi (who attends Flintridge Prep, a few blocks down Crown) as the best players in their respective age groups at the seventh annual version of the prestigious contest, which was held in Beverly Hills.
“I thought I was playing badly,” said Smith, 13, a freshman at La Cañada High School. “I missed a lot of notes.”
“I think when I think I don’t do well, I do well,” said Tsoi, 17, a junior. “And when I think I do well, I don’t place at all.”
Said Dwight Smith, Michael’s dad: “I felt so sorry for the judges. I was glad I got a chance to just listen to everyone, becaause they were great.”
Smith and Tsoi didn’t know each other before the event and were surprised to see another pianist with LCF ties in the program that was distributed at the winners’ recital.
Michael Smith, who has been playing since he was 6, won for his performance of “Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No. 2” and “Etude in C minor, Op. 10, No. 12.”
“At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter how many notes you hit, it was about musicality,” Smith said. “That’s another aspect of Chopin, while it’s not the most technically difficult, it’s still hard. But even if you miss some notes, that’s less important than how you’re playing it.”
Even at home, before an audience of only two, Smith played the “Polonaise” with conviction and verve.
Tsoi said she isn’t known for grand expression at the piano, but because she was having a “bad day,” she was able to tear into her rendition of “Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23” with extra passion.
“Because my piece is very angsty, I was in the mood for it,” she said. “I was like, ‘I don’t care how this goes.’ I wasn’t even nervous. When I got up on stage, I channeled my anger.
“And afterward, one of the judges said, ‘I really felt like your personal story came through’!”
Tsoi has been playing since she was 5 and now studies with Nobuyo Nishizaka. Under her tutelage, Tsoi has won several contests, including the MTAC State Solo competition, the L.A. Young Musicians International Competition and the American Protege International Competition, which came with the opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall.
She’s always enjoyed playing, Tsoi said, but she really fell for the instrument during the Indiana University Piano Summer Academy.
“That was the first time that I felt like I wasn’t a cookie cutter,” said Tsoi, who also does dance at Flintridge Prep. “Until then, I only knew how to follow what my teacher suggested, I wasn’t an artist at all, I just took what people said and didn’t have my own opinions on anything. And then they asked me, ‘What do you want?’ I didn’t know, because I’d never done that. But after a few days, my perspective on music really changed.”
She hopes to minor in music in college, she said, and she hopes to keep playing — “I’ve put so much work into it, it would be a waste to just stop.”
Despite his lengthy relationship with the piano, Smith doesn’t have plans to pursue it after high school except as a hobby. He plans to shift his focus to business after graduating from LCHS.
“For now, it’s just about really mastering it before I move on to other things,” said Smith, who travels to Loyola Marymount to study with Wojciech Kocyan.
Smith also plays viola in the orchestra — and wing on the boys’ soccer team — at LCHS. He’s also a lacrosse player and, in 2011, won the California State Judo Championship in his age division.
For all of his interests, for now, he’s passionately dedicated to the piano, practicing at least an hour every day.
“I like music that’s loud and fast and exciting,” Smith said. “And when I find a piece I like, I’ll work on it really hard.”
He said he takes each composition slowly, part by part. He focuses, at first, on the notes.
“For me that’s the most important thing, in front of tempo and rhythm,” Smith said. “Once I get a part down, I play it and I pick up the speed, and I do that for every single part of the piece until I finish it.”
Tsoi takes a backward approach: “I do this really weird thing. When I have to quickly memorize something, I play backward. I start from the last note, and then add second-to-last note and then the third-to-last note. It makes it less repetitive and a bit more fun, even though it takes forever.”
All that hard work is worth it, Smith said.
“It’s definitely rewarding,” he said. “Psychologically, depending on the music you play, it changes your mood.
“And, of course, the rewards of winning are also great.”